incarnation

Why Weakness Should Drive us Godward

Weakness, moral and otherwise has a way of pushing us away from God. It certainly does not serve as a confidence builder when approaching the holy God of the universe.

Hebrews introduces us to a different perspective, an incarnational logic. Take a look at Hebrews 4:14-16.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

The call in this passage is to “hold fast our confession” and to “draw near” to God with confidence that we might know the help of grace when in need. Note what grounds  the call, what forms the foundation of this confidence.

Incredibly, it’s how God engages our weakness. The “for” and “then” of the text drive us to the central confidence giver in the face of weakness—a sympathetic Savior.

We do not have a mediator who lacks understanding, a stand-between ignorant of suffering, a high priest incapable of meeting weakness with grace. He is sympathetic (συμπαθῆσαι). This is a description of the God-man. This is the fruit of  the incarnation and cross—understanding and sympathy.

The NIGTC commentary on Hebrews states that “Christ’s earthly life gives him inner understanding of human experience, and thus makes him ready and able to give active help.”

The very thing that drives us away from God should push us toward him. Our weakness is always met by a gracious, understanding Savior who desires to provide help. He does not engage our weakness with condemnation, but kindness.

Through Christ even our weaknesses are transformed into an invitation to know his grace and mercy. They are the occasion for experiencing God’s help.

Advertisements

Learning From Sinful Angels

We have a lot to learn from angels. They are a model of loyalty, service, reverence, worship, holy curiosity and strength. We do well to study the Scripture to better understand these brilliant creatures we will spend eternity with.

We have a lot to learn from fallen angels. They are a model of pride, disloyalty, rebellion, deception and sin. We also do well to study Scripture to better understand the nature of sin in our own souls, the weapons of our foes and the actions that will separate one from God.

In Jude 6 we are given a window into the transgression of the angels. Check out what the brother of Jesus who became his servant says about this.

“And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.”

The fall of the angels was fundamentally a rejection of their proper place before God. They had authority, they held a position of honor, they had a proper place in the presence of God—in their created nature and given vocation. They had a seat at the table.

Sin viewed from this angle is pushing outside one’s boundary. It is beliefs and actions that transgress God-given boundaries. The Creator sets the parameters of all created things. He tells the ocean, “thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed ?” (Job 38:11).

He tells the angels here is your place, here is your role, here is your authority to execute your vocation. The angelic rebellion was a rejection of the joy and freedom set by divine limitation. Rather than embracing the gift of existence and vocation they audaciously stormed the gates of heaven. Authors of the first coup the angelic host found slavery on the other side of their trespass.

Human transgression is made of the same stuff. My rebellion toward my Creator is no different. Like Adam and Eve before me I reject my creaturely limits. I reach outside my capacity and grasp for deity. I crave omnipotence. I claim omniscience. I attempt omnipresence. I determine morality.

Rather than embracing the freedom of creaturely limitation I transgress my parameters. A hardwired idolater, my heart is constantly striving to dethrone my Maker. Thank God for Jesus Christ! The only remedy for idol-ridden human beings, transgressing creatures, and trespassing image-bearers.

Remarkably God could have chosen to rescue fallen angels, but he did not. He came for us. The fall of angelic beings and their certain eternal destruction should create in us deep humility and rich gratitude. The writer of Hebrews captures this wonderful mercy.

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:14-17).

Praise be to God! He helps us! Mercy is the only explanation. He provides no help to the angels, he certainly did not have to provide help to humanity. The incarnation and cross was the form his help took. To accomplish our salvation “he had to” be made like us. There was no other way.

The “elect angels” (1 Tim 5:21) who have remained in their proper positions “long to look” into these matters of salvation. Their angelic curiosity is matched by their astonishment at the Creator’s humility and grace. It is angels who set the pace for worshipping the Lamb who was slain with fierce zeal (Rev 5:11-12). We have much to learn.

The Creative Presence of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the quiet, humble power standing behind the world’s greatest moments. His personal presence is identifiable at the critical points in creation and redemption. Reading the gospel of Matthew tonight I was deeply encouraged by the mind blowing story of the Son of God’s conception. The wonder of Christ’s miraculous birth need not be relegated to the Christmas season. The phrase in the Matthew story seems so nonchalant, especially for a bombshell. Mary was “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:18). And a little later, “that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:20).

God’s gracious invasion into this fractured, groaning world was miraculous on every level. It was undeserved and gracious, the last thing humanity asked for and the first thing we needed. It was made possible only by unified Triune action. God the Father, Son and Spirit were equally required to engage and execute the plan of redemption. The One God in three persons alone could bring about the rescue mission humanity needed. The presence of the Spirit in knitting together the Christ in Mary’s womb signals the necessary divine handiwork for the entrance of God onto our soil.

The birth of the God-man was one of the most critical stages in God’s saving plan. The perfect life, the substitutionary death, the mighty resurrection, the exaltation to the right hand, the glorious return…all contingent upon a birth. The Spirit’s breath over Mary created saving possibilities that never existed before. The bringing forth of this embryo by divine means signaled beginnings far beyond the birth of a child. The Mighty Spirit shines forth with such glory in this moment. His behind the scenes heart and humble serving actions come into play as he quietly turns the world upside down by mysteriously creating a new life within a young Hebrew woman.

This Creative Spirit’s work extends into our lives. It is very encouraging to know that the same person who breathed on Mary and created the human life of the God-man is the one committed to saving us. It is assuring to know what the Spirit of God is not only capable of, but what he is willing to do. St. Augustine recognized his need for the Spirit’s creative work to be accomplished in him. His prayer to the Holy Spirit is instructive and helpful, one I want to make my own.

“Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy. Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy. Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. Amen.”

Christmas Theology: Baby Boy and Humble Father

Jesus is true God and true man. As such, he reveals authentic humanity and authentic deity. Want to know about man? Go to Jesus. Want to know about God? Go to Jesus. The multi-faceted mission of Jesus included this crucial revelatory dimension. He came to explain God.

In Jesus God comes walking, speaking, touching, teaching, serving, dying, and rising. The wonderful collision of creature and Creator, this is the Christ event. What you see in Christ’s character is fundamentally true of God the Father. This is rich Christmas theology. A crucial chapter in God’s autobiography is written at the birth of Jesus. The title could very well be “The Humble God.”

In this post we discuss the connection of Christ’s humility to the Father’s humble nature. I believe we will find the old adage “like father like son” true of God.

The Son’s Revelation of the Humble Father

There are a number of texts we could look at to begin this discussion. I have chosen a brilliant passage from the book of Hebrews. The author clearly holds a high christology.

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).

The language is magnificent. Paul Ellingworth in his NIGCT commentary states, “In the present verse, ‘exact imprint of his nature’ (χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ) reinforces ‘radiance of glory’ (ἀπαύγασμα τῆς δόξης) in describing the essential unity and exact resemblance between God and his Son…In the present verse, God’s ‘nature’ (ὑπόστασις) is his essential being, ‘the reality of God.'”

The Son is a true representation of the Father as he shares an identical nature with him. It follows that the character/nature of the Son is always consistent with the Father. The second text comes from the book of Matthew.

“All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27, cf Lk 10:22).

The Son holds exclusive knowledge of and access to the Father. It is grace that grant others that access and knowledge. The mission of the Son aims to make both a reality in the lives of sinful man. The text continues with an invitation to God and a revelation of his character. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:28-29).”

John Nolland in his commentary on Matthew makes some insightful observations. “Matthew 11:25–27 has dealt with both the revealing and the concealing activity of the Father and the Son. Where the failure of response in vv. 20–24 corresponds to the concealing activity, the fresh invitation in vv. 28–30 is probably intended to correspond to the revealing activity.” When Jesus is talking about his humble heart he is revealing the Father’s heart as well. He is doing exactly what he said he came to do in the previous verses.

Nolland goes on to discuss the significance of humility in this revelatory statement. “Moderation and other-centredness fit the context in Mt. 11:29. Matthew’s interest in Jesus as gentle (πραΰς) is reflected in his use in a fulfillment citation in Mt. 21:4–5 of Zc. 9:9 with its identification of the coming king as gentle (πραΰς). Matthew does not use humility (ταπεινός) elsewhere. The word normally designates a person who is in or has been reduced to a lowly position. But like gentle (πραΰς), it also has an ethical use. An ethical use is signalled here by the addition of τῇ καρδίᾳ (‘in heart’), which performs much the same role as τῷ πνεύματι (‘in spirit’) in Mt. 5:3. The one who is ταπεινός τῇ καρδία is unassuming and demonstrates humility.”

Nolland’s discussion on the original languages is important as this verse explicitly ties humility to the character of Christ. Theologically the text is significant as it draws an exegetical and contextual link between the Son’s humility and the Father’s character.

I end this post with a quote by Athan Smith. Note particularly the language of the Triune God entering human existence through the mediation of the Son. In the Son we do indeed see the Trinity.

“There and then, before creation, it was decided that the Son would cross every chasm between God and humanity and establish a real and abiding relationship—union. He was predestined to be the mediator, the one in and through whom the very life of the Triune God would enter human existence and human existence would be lifted up to share in the Trinitarian life. The gospel is the good news that this stunning plan of the Triune God has now become eternal fact in Jesus Christ. In his incarnate life, death, resurrection and ascension, he laid hold of the human race, took us down in his death, recreated us in his resurrection, and lifted us up into the embrace of the Father in his ascension.”

The Unsurprising Incarnation

I continue to be amazed by the humility of God in the storyline of Scripture. God persistently comes low to engage his creatures. His chosen vehicles of self-disclosure are always understandable and meaningful to humanity. Whether he is walking in the garden with Adam and Eve, wrestling with Jacob in human form, or having a conversation with Moses face to face, God’s revelatory activity is marked by condescension.

This is not surprising as humility is fundamental to the life of the Triune community. It is the warp and woof, the lifeblood, indeed, the cardinal principal that orders the life of God. God the Father, Son, and Spirit are equally humble in their engagement with one another. Every exchange among the three persons is executed with a posture of humility. God’s life is a dance of three persons striving to outdo one another in honor. When the Triune God engages the world we would expect to see the same thing, and we do.

The manner of revelatory activity in the Old Testament prepares the reader for a humble Christ. The larger canonical context leads us to read the incarnation as “normative” divine activity. In many ways, the incarnation is the logical next step in the Triune God’s self-disclosure. Don’t misunderstand me, the incarnation is astonishing and overwhelming. My point is that incarnation should not be considered “abnormal” activity for the humble Creator. It is consistent with who God is and how he has revealed himself throughout redemptive history.

The incarnation serves to reinforce and deepen our understanding of the humility of God. It serves as a link to all past revelation and yet is a clear and drastic move forward in God’s self-disclosure. God the Son permanently takes to himself humanity. The life of God can never be the same! The more God shows us himself the more overwhelmed we become by the depth of his humility.

The humility of the incarnation prepares the way for the humility of the cross. N.T. Wright captures the trajectory of the thought we have been tracing as he talks about the cross. God does not show us something new about himself, He simply continues to show us who He is.

“God became on the cross what God always was. I may have it in me, in ability and desire, to climb Mount Everest; but until I actually go into training and do it it remains latent. You may have it in you to be a brilliant concert pianist; but until you get down to practice and performance, all that brilliance remains latent. God always was the God of love—generous, spontaneous, free and cheerful self-giving love; but until God, if we dare put it like this, gets down to practice and performance, that love at its deepest level remains latent. On the cross God performs the score composed before the foundation of the world. On the cross God at last scales the highest peaks. It isn’t just that the cross reveals God’s love in its most striking way. It reveals it because it enacts it. It becomes part of, indeed the most central part of, the personal history of God…And now, to all eternity, the cross remains at the heart of God, stands as the truest symbol of God, offers the most exact and precise exposition of God.” [1]

[1] N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 56-57.

The God on his Knees

Philippians 2:1-11 is one of the most well known passages in the Pauline letters. I have been intrigued by the vision of God that is given in this passage. Here is the text for you to read and the following is a meditation on the humility of God.

1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This text is phenomenal. Paul is showing us that humility is central to the character of God.  Here we see a God who gets underneath his creatures to serve them. A God who actually considers his creatures more important than himself. A God who genuinely looks out for our interests above his own. Stunning!

This text points us to the reality that Jesus is God’s chosen self-disclosure. If you want to know what God is like you must look to Jesus. This is implicit in the text. It is explicit elsewhere. John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God; the only God who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Jesus has explained God to the world. He has led him out from behind the curtain for all to see.

Hebrews 1:3 says that Jesus is the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.”  When you look at Jesus you see God.And when we do look at Jesus, what do we see?

We see a humble man serving us with great humility and sacrifice at every turn. The text maps out the humble journey of the Son of God. At each critical juncture, we see humility embodied and explained. I want to highlight three junctures in the journey of Jesus: the crib, the cross, and the crown. All three of this junctures are marked by humility.

The Crib


In verses 3 and 4 the text reads, “in humility count others as more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also the interest of others.” Paul tells us that this was precisely the mindset of Jesus. It was his frame of mind when he agreed with the Father to come into this world and become a man.

As C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less about yourself, but thinking about yourself less.” It is the freedom of self-forgetfulness and the joy of throwing yourself into the service of others. This is what characterizes the life of God.

Verse 6 is quite incredible, “although he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Jesus was fully equal with God. But he did not use his divine status as an excuse to remove himself from our need. He did not cling to his exalted position instead he used it for our good. “He emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

One author explains the significance of this statement as follows: “The decision to become human, and to go all the way along the road of obedience, obedience to the divine plan of salvation, yes, all the way was not a decision to stop being divine. It was a decision about what it really meant to be divine.” In other words, the fact that Jesus refused to remain in heaven speaks volumes about God. This is a God who uses all of his divine resources to serve and save us!

In Jesus we behold a God in the crib. A God so humble that he was willing to become a child. He was willing to be clothed and fed by a mother. He was willing to learn to crawl, talk, and dress himself—so that one day he could put himself on a piece of wood and die for us!

The Cross


Paul tells us in verse 8 that Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

This is the climax of humble service. Everything in the life of Jesus was building to this moment. As Luther once said, “The cross and crib are cut from the same wood.” The cross was just the next stage in his humble service toward us. But the cross changes everything. The definition of humility was forever altered after the Son of God was hung upon a tree for you and me. Who is this God?

Hearers of this message in Paul’s day would have been absolutely stunned that any deity would be connected to humility and more than that a cross. Humility was not a virtue for the roman gods; it was a weakness. Augustine was adamant that you would not find the quality of humility ever attributed to any other so called god. This was a virtue that belonged exclusively to Jesus Christ.

A cross was even crazier—many thought that the early Christians were “mad” for worshipping a God that had been crucified. Crucifixion was the ultimate shameful death—how could you claim that a god could ever be crucified and even more how could you ever worship such a weak and helpless god?

The truth, however, is that the cross is the greatest display of humble love the world has ever known. It expresses to us that we have a God who was literally humbled to death for our sake! A God who was swallowed by death in order to destroy it from the inside—for us!

Luther says, “Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross.” Why? Because this is his glory! The God who comes low and took on death to demonstrate the depth of his concern—this is glory.

Without a humble God we could not be saved. Augustine said “there would be no salvation for us if Christ had not been prepared to humble himself for our sakes.” The humility of Jesus is a saving humility. He is not just showing us the way of humility. He is saving us by his humility.

The Crown


Paul tells us that this humiliation takes a turn to exaltation. God highly exalts him and gives him a name above all names. And it is at this name that every knee will bow and tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father.

Even here the glory of humility is evident. It is the humility of God that brings us to our knees in adoration. When we behold the stunning and unexpected glory of humility, we ourselves are humbled. God crushes us with his kindness—it is his kindness that leads us to repentance. I believe this is just another dimension or angle on his humility.

When the Son is exalted what does he do in heaven as he sits at the right hand of God enthroned? The book of Hebrews and the book of Romans both tell us that he does not sit on his throne much—instead we find him on his knees interceding and praying for us! This is how he reigns from heaven—with sacrificial concern and service.

When we look at Jesus we behold a God on his knees. Crawling as a baby. Falling to his knees as he carries the cross. On his knees in prayer as our King. The glory of his humility is blinding. He considers us as more important than himself and proves it by giving his own life for our sake. Such humility beckons us—calls us to worship. It calls us to join God on our knees. If we serve a God who is comfortable on his knees then surely that is where we will meet with him.

Explosion of Joy

I was struck by this verse recently. Look how the wise men react to seeing the star that would lead them to the manger. “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matt 2:10). This is joy taken to the next level. This is rejoicing pushed to its limit. These guys were out of their minds happy. I really would have loved to watch them at this moment. I wonder how they expressed this explosive joy. Did they laugh? Did they cry? Did they shout? Did they leap? Did they take off sprinting toward the star? Did they jump onto their camels and compel them forward as fast as possible? What was their conversation as they made the last leg of their journey?

Beyond these questions is a larger, more important one. What provoked such an eruption of joy? What led them to such exuberance and celebration? What might lead us down the same path? The answer is so expected and yet so mind boggling. Their excessive joy came from the reality of the incarnation. The King they so longed for had come and was reigning in the manger. God had become what he had never been before, a man. As the God-man he was Immanuel. At his coming hope was rendered unnecessary as it gave way to reality. This promised King was the ground of their overwhelming joy. This King in a humble manger destined for a wretched cross—this is the source of explosive joy. As we pursue God in the crib and on the cross liberating joy is certain to follow.